By Shealeigh Voitl
Much has been said about how broken the music streaming structure is for artists. Music insiders have long criticized services for their lack of transparency and disregard for songwriters and performers. Just last week, Music Business Worldwide reported that Spotify plans to slash its already meager royalty rates for its lowest-streaming artists.
In 2015, singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, whose music has never appeared on the platform, called Spotify a “villainous cabal of major labels” that was “built from the ground up as a way to circumvent the idea of paying their artists.”
Apple Music, Spotify’s biggest rival, has made some improvements, increasing their payout to roughly a penny per stream. But most artists today won’t be able to make a “sustainable living out of (releasing) music,” Mark Mulligan, an analyst at Midia Research told the Guardian in 2021. “Streaming only adds up when you have billions, not millions, of streams,” Mulligan explained. Put simply, streaming benefits major record labels and superstars; others are often forced to forge a different path.
So, what’s different about Bandcamp, the online record store and distribution platform based out of Oakland, California? For one, Bandcamp allows artists and labels to upload their music directly to the site and set their prices for digital and physical products, with Bandcamp taking a 10-15 percent cut of the sales. Listeners can stream via Bandcamp, but can typically only enjoy unlimited streaming if they purchase the music.
On Bandcamp Fridays, which the company began at the start of the pandemic to help artists make up for a loss of touring income, the site waives its usual revenue share, allowing fans to directly support artists and labels once every month, with 82 percent of proceeds going to the artist/label any other time you buy from Bandcamp.
So, where Spotify and others may fail to adequately value art and the artists who create it, Bandcamp gives fans the opportunity to invest in the music and performers they love. Bandcamp also launched its online music publication, Bandcamp Daily, in 2016 for its robust music community, frequently featuring independent, relatively unknown artists and eclectic and experimental sounds from all over the world.
Instead of positioning itself as a mainstream cultural influencer, as Pitchfork has done increasingly since being bought by Condé Nast in 2015, Bandcamp has remained focused on providing a platform for independent and emerging artists to connect directly with their audiences and maintain artistic authenticity.
After Epic Games, the video game and software developer behind games such as Fortnite, bought Bandcamp in 2022, long-time Bandcamp enthusiasts wondered how the acquisition would ultimately transform the platform. A year later, Bandcamp workers formed a union known as Bandcamp United, composed of engineers, writers, project managers, designers, and support staff, who sought to address historical disparities in pay and access to paid time off, among other issues.
Less than two years after the Epic Games sale, Songtradr, a B2B music licensing service, acquired Bandcamp, and workers were sent into freefall. This month, Songtradr laid off about half of Bandcamp’s staff, including three of six editorial staff at Bandcamp Daily and forty members of Bandcamp United’s sixty-seven-person bargaining committee.
JJ Skolnik, a former senior editor at Bandcamp Daily, tweeted, “officially laid off, after two weeks of limbo where I expected that would be the case but had no confirmation. nearly eight years at bandcamp and it’s over.”
Bandcamp United also announced this week that Black workers were disproportionately affected by the layoffs, with only four of Bandcamp’s nineteen Black employees receiving job offers after the Songtradr deal.
When asked by Pitchfork if Bandcamp’s “artist revenue shares, user experience, or the editorial platform Bandcamp Daily will be affected by the acquisition,” Songtradr declined to comment. The following week, Songtradr CEO Paul Wiltshire told Billboard, “We think Bandcamp is a great platform as it is. There’s not a need to change it into anything other than what it is.”
But Skolnik shared in late October that the cuts hurt not only those who have been laid off but also make it much harder for remaining staff to do their jobs. So, now, what happens to Bandcamp Daily and its essential, unparalleled voice in underground music? What becomes of Bandcamp?
Trusting Songtradr’s word of “business as usual” seems futile after the layoffs. The landscape of music journalism has shifted a lot in the last decade, emphasizing, as NPR music critic Ann Powers put it in 2021, “pop’s 1 per cent (sic) to the extreme.” So, to contemplate the loss or distortion of something like Bandcamp Daily, which has been a lifeline to thousands of independent artists who make music for the love of music, is crushing.
Bandcamp has long been a haven for artists who reject the music business’s exploitative practices or have otherwise been marginalized by the corporate ethos that permeates nearly every aspect of the industry.
As that industry continues to grapple with issues of transparency, artist compensation, and creative authenticity, the fate of Bandcamp serves as a pernicious reminder of the ongoing struggle to preserve the voices of underground music and independent artists and those who listen with keen appreciation.
Shealeigh Voitl is Project Censored’s Digital and Print Editor. A regular contributor to the Project’s yearbook series, her writing has been featured in State of the Free Press 2023, Truthout, The Progressive, and Ms. Magazine.